Mopeds, Thugs, and an Opera-Loving Mailman: Diva This Friday

decorative diva
Diane Berrett Brown

I write, briefly, to convince you to come to a free screening of the film Diva (1981) this Friday at 7:00 p.m., sponsored by Films at the Whitney. Given the fickle nature of trends, if you were born after, say, 1980, you may have never heard of this gem of a film by French director Jean-Jacques Beineix, who died last year. I’ve mentioned this film to friends in French studies over the years and without fail those of us who ended up doing graduate work in French all seem to have seen the film in high school in the 1980s, loved it, and then somehow decided as a result that everything about France was cool. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard friends wonder if we really would have continued to study French if we’d never seen Diva.

I have not seen Diva in more than thirty years, so it’s a bold move to write about it and bolder still to claim to recall specific scenes. Bear with me! Here are a few things you will discover if you join us for Friday’s screening.

The thuggiest thugs in cinema. Only one of them speaks, and he speaks mostly in monosyllables, primarily to opine on everything he hates, e.g., J’aime pas les ascenseurs (I hate elevators).

Ontological musings on the baguette, as the slicing of a baguette becomes a near mystical experience (pas trop mince, pas trop épais—not too thin, not too thick). All of this while, if memory serves, another character dreamily roller skates around a loft.

Erik Satie’s mesmerizing Gymnopédies and perhaps the most exquisite aria you’ll ever hear—from Alfredo Catalani’s little-known opera La Wally (1892).

A gorgeous cinematic city walk: Paris at dawn, in the rain—or perhaps just after the rain?—to the music of Satie.

A cinematic embodiment of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: the primary plot device involves overlapping desires for a bootleg copy of a performance of the aria from La Wally, by the American diva Cynthia Hawkins, who famously forbids any recording of her voice.

A wild chase scene on mopeds through the Paris métro.

A serious meditation on fandom—can it ever approach pure love?

Diva overwhelms with aestheticized style, sometimes surrealist, sometimes pop art. It’s also a thriller with overly long chase scenes, dirty cops, Taiwanese music pirates, drug dealers, and a deus-ex-machina resolution. It is many things—and has been many things to my generation of scholars of French. Mostly, though, it gives us the unforgettable Jules driven by the conviction that beauty—embodied in the singular voice of the American diva—is worth pursuing, no matter the risk.

If I haven’t convinced you, please watch the trailer. And I’ll see you Friday at the Alice Cinema!

Diane Berrett Brown is associate director of the Whitney Humanities Center.